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Digital TV Switch Pushed

Congress: In draft bill, lawmakers propose steps to speed transition. It would make most analog TVs obsolete by 2007.


WASHINGTON — Hoping to speed the nation's transition to digital television, key lawmakers are circulating a draft of a bill that would render most TVs obsolete by 2007 and require millions of Americans to spend hundreds of dollars on new sets or special equipment.

The proposal, which would force broadcasters to stop sending conventional analog television signals by Dec. 31, 2006, immediately sparked a firestorm of criticism from broadcasters and consumer groups, who predicted such a requirement would face substantial opposition in Congress.

The draft, circulated by Reps. W.J. "Billy" Tauzin (R-La.) and John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), leaders of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, is intended to light a fire under broadcasters, cable operators and equipment manufacturers to accelerate the roll-out of digital TV.

Digital TV promises to dramatically improve picture quality, through such technologies as high-definition TV, and provide viewers with CD-quality audio, more channels and interactivity.

In 1996, Congress set a 2006 target date for most TV broadcasters to end analog broadcasts and send only digital signals. But the switch has been slow. The Tauzin-Dingell proposal would fix a final deadline that could not be extended.

Consumer demand for digital TV has been weak, in part because of the high cost of digital TVs, the incompatibility of set-top boxes and the scarcity of innovative programming being broadcast. Only about 3 million digital TV sets--which can cost thousands of dollars--have been sold, and fewer than one-third of broadcast TV stations are transmitting digitally.

Under current law, TV stations may continue using airwaves earmarked for analog signals until 85% of households in their market have digital TV sets. Based on the slow sales of digital TVs, few markets were expected to meet the 85% threshold by 2006.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael K. Powell also has adopted digital TV as a pet cause. Last month, the FCC ordered TV manufacturers to install digital tuners in most sets by 2007.

Congressional staffers stressed that the Tauzin-Dingell draft is only a "starting point" and said the final bill is not expected to be introduced for several months. A hearing is scheduled for next week.

"This is classic Tauzin and Dingell strategy," said Seth Greenstein, an attorney representing several consumer electronics makers. "You give some candy to all the major players, but you make them take their medicine as well."

Government leaders are motivated to switch to digital TV largely by economics. The sooner broadcasters switch to digital signals, the sooner they will be required to return billions of dollars' worth of analog TV spectrum, which the government plans to auction off for other uses, probably wireless services.

Some critics say the government is pushing a technology that consumers don't really want.

If the draft legislation becomes law, consumers with traditional analog TV sets in 2007 would be unable to view over-the-air digital TV signals unless they purchase digital sets or special converter boxes. Cable or satellite TV customers would be less affected because most set-top boxes already are capable of converting digital signals to analog.

The proposal also requires the FCC to settle a spat between entertainment companies and technology firms to implement a copy-protection technology, known as a broadcast flag, designed to protect over-the-air digital shows from being copied and redistributed over the Internet. The draft requires the technology to be installed in all digital devices by Jan. 1, 2006.

Hollywood has lobbied hard for a government mandate on the broadcast flag. But the Tauzin-Dingell proposal would be a setback for broadcasters that must upgrade their transmission facilities with expensive new equipment. A spokesman for the National Assn. of Broadcasters declined to comment Thursday.

Some electronics firms worry that the technology mandated by the draft will not work and predict that consumers will reject it.

One technology group,, called the draft "clumsy and dangerous" and warned that its proposals would make millions of existing VCRs inoperable.

In a statement, Tauzin said, "While we prefer marketplace solutions, clearly it is time for us to provide leadership in this area. By doing so, we hope to ensure that consumers benefit in a meaningful way from this exciting transition."

A vote is not likely until next year, but lobbying from various industries and consumer groups has been underway since June, when Tauzin abandoned efforts to mediate a private-sector settlement.

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